“Play Ball, You All”: Baseball’s Turn Down Tin Pan Alley

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“Play Ball, You All”: Baseball’s Turn Down Tin Pan Alley by Katherine Walden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The intersection of baseball and popular music is a rich component of the sport’s history and significance in American popular culture. Although baseball’s contemporary sound track spans a number of popular genres, the sport’s intersection with popular music originates in the late-19th century Tin Pan Alley publishing houses in New York City. Although Von Tilzer and Norworth’s staple “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is the era’s most prominent contribution to the baseball soundscape, that title was not the only baseball-related one produced by the Tin Pan Alley industry. The sheet music for other baseball titles has been archived, and a few recording projects have elevated this repertoire’s profile (most notably the concerts staged by the Baseball Music Project and the soundtrack for Ken Burns’ 1994 Baseballdocumentary). But, no project to date has explored this repertoire in depth, and simply amassing a collection of song titles does little to support rigorous scholarly engagement or inquiry.

This project (still in its early stages) uses the resources of digital humanities methods and technologies to create a collection that encompasses the over two hundred Tin Pan Alley titles with some baseball connection, combining the Margaret and Franklin Steele Sheet Music Collection (held at the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Giamatti Research Center) and the Library of Congress’s digitized baseball sheet music collection. Although the Steele collection includes baseball-related sheet music from 1885 through 1992, this project focuses on titles published before the 1960s. This project is working toward curating a robust digital archive on the Omeka platform that includes sheet music PDF scans, item descriptions, lyric transcriptions, and eventually audio recordings. Such a collection would make possible research that explores new insights into baseball’s role in American popular culture during the early-twentieth century period, particularly using Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities to consider the intersection of baseball fan communities and sheet music as a print culture (and perhaps sufficiently address why “Take Me Out” became the baseball hit).

Although this stage of the project is focused on building a robust digital collection, a research project that works at the intersection of sport and sound studies is a focus given little attention in existing research. And, more broadly, the emergence of sound studies as an area of research within cultural studies is a fairly recent development. In the 1990 American Quarterly article “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies,” George Lipsitz provided the following explanation for why cultural studies scholars should engage more deeply with popular culture research:

“As a field, American Studies always has been at its best when engaged in dialogue with the complex and conflicted realities of American life and culture. Yet too often its dominant paradigms have suffered from an over-emphasis on what has been articulated from within the profession, and a consequent underemphasis on the voices, power struggles, and ideological conflicts outside it. The complicated relationship between scholarly methods and the popular cultures, political economies, and ideologies of America demand a scholarship capable of adopting Duke Ellington's advice and learning how to do careful and comprehensive listening.”[1]

Lipsitz’s 1994 Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place represented one of the first cultural studies monographs to directly engage in sound-culture studies work.[2] The research drew on postmodern, diaspora, and transnational critical theory (particularly Paul Gilroy’s work on Black Britain) to explore how particular musical genres occupy contested spaces of creation and performance. Lipisitz’s attention to the relationship between transmission of culture and representation of identity was a marked departure from earlier trends toward privileging literary texts and elite perspectives. His research also marked sound-culture studies as distinct from ethnomusicology methodologies, which had tended to preference musical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork over extensive engagement with cultural studies critical theory.

Even as a cultural studies approach to sound studies began to take shape, sound studies continued to evolve largely separate from interdisciplinary cultural studies, building on Schafer’s work in acoustic ecology and other work similar to World Soundscape Project.  Douglas Kahn’s 1999 monograph Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts reflected his media and technocultural studies background.[3] Media and technology scholar Jonathan Sterne’s 2004 book The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction as well as the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies and Sterne’s Sound Studies Reader (both published in 2012) emphasized the techno-scientific, rather than cultural or social, components of sonic environments, a marked difference from the American Studies cultural framework outlined by Lipsitz.[4]

But during these years, sound-culture studies monographs from humanities scholars began to appear with increasing frequency. Cultural historian Mark Smith’s Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (2001) explored how soundscapes in America’s rural and urban regions impacted the lived reality of racial hierarchies, cultural norms, and changing urban spaces, and his 2004 edited collection Hearing History addressed European and American historical sound cultures. [5] Although similar to the model outlined by Lipsitz, Smith’s focus on providing a historical context for specific sonic environments (versus placing that history in dialogue with critical theory from cultural studies) situates his work outside an American Studies framework. Emily Thompson’s 2002 monograph The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America expertly bridges the gap between “scientific” sound studies and sound-culture studies through drawing on her training in physics and history to explore how human subjects heard, experienced, and interpreted those environments. Her analysis argues the construction of particular sonic environments regulated human behavior and influenced socio-cultural practice.[6]

Despite increased attention to sound studies and popular culture research, fundamental questions about how to frame sound studies remain. In a 2004 article in Social Studies of Science, Trevor Pinch and Karen Bijsterveld defined sound studies as “an emerging interdisciplinary area that studies the material production and consumption of music, sound, noise, and silence, and how these have changed throughout history and within different societies, but does so from a much broader perspective than standard disciplines such as ethnomusicology, history of music, and sociology of music.”[7] When reviewing Jonathan Sterne’s Audible Past and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity, media scholar Michelle Hilmes posited the following questions in her review title: “Is there a field called sound culture studies? And does it matter?”[8]

Josh Kun’s 2005 ground-breaking Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America brought together the work of Theodore Adorno, Christopher Small, Greil Marcus, Paul Gilroy, and Stuart Hall (among others) to posit the interdisciplinary notion of “audiotopias,” defined as “identificatory ‘contact zones’…sonic and social spaces where disparate identity-formations, cultures, and geographies historically kept and mapped separately are allowed to interact with each other as well enter into relationships whose consequences for cultural identification are never predetermined.”[9] His work purposefully avoids using the label “American popular music,” raising a number of questions about the intersection of music, migration, and nationalism, but his framing of sound, space, and subjects provided an interdisciplinary framework for sound- or music-related cultural studies research.

In a March 2011 American Quarterly special issue,“Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” co-editors Kara Keeling and Josh Kun argued “the era of sound’s marginality in American Studies scholarship…seems to be over, as more and more scholars across a variety of disciplines are beginning to not only take the culture, consumption, and politics of sound seriously but are making it the centerpiece of their research, publishing, and pedagogy.”[10] The special issue emerged in response to an observation that, “Music studies have long been fundamental to American studies, but sound—and the sensuous acts of listening and hearing—have just recently been attracting a wide range of scholarly attention” and increased attention to the role of sound and music in popular culture could allow “knowledges and insights that have not been perceptible to our dominant intellectual paradigms might be heard or heard anew.”[11]

Despite the rich work produced under the banner of sound studies, little research exists at the intersection sports and sound studies. Anthony Bateman and John Bale’s 2008 edited collection Sporting Sound: Relationships Between Sport and Music focuses on the technical, scientific intersections of sound and sport and use a sociological framework to address human experience in sporting environments.[12] We Are the Champions: The Politics of Sport and Popular Music, ethnomusicologist’s Ken McCleod’s 2011 text, is one of the only monographs addressing the cultural and social significance and roles of music and sound in sport, emphasizing issues of race and gender and effectively blurring the distinction between ethnomusicology and cultural studies. McCleod’s work draws on an interdisciplinary, cultural studies-based framing to explore the various ways sport, sound, and music intersect in contemporary American professional sports, making the work a rich foundation for future scholarship in this vein.[13] Bateman’s more recent Sport, Music, Identities anthology is a useful collection for exploring the various ways sport and music intersect in contemporary and historical contexts, but its global focus and emphasis on direct interpolations of music at sporting events makes its framework ill-fitting for this project.[14] Ethnomusicologist Matthew Mihalka’s 2012 dissertation “From the Hammond Organ to ‘Sweet Caroline’: The Historical Evolution of Baseball’s Sonic Environment” focused on musical history and ethno-organology, rather than employing a cultural studies framework.[15] Although sound and music studies are becoming increasingly prominent within cultural studies, few scholars have followed in McCleod’s footsteps to explore the rich connections between sport and music.

Throughout the twentieth century, musicologists and ethnomusicologists have richly documented the history of Tin Pan Alley (TPA) as a music business industry and stylistic genre, discussing extensively how TPA worked as an industry business, publishing outlet for composers, and driving influence behind live entertainment and music tastes within America during its early-twentieth century heyday.[16] While research exists on the musical structure and patterns of TPA songs (and how the TPA “genre” changed over time) and the lyric construction, little research has explored how the themes of TPA songs even outside sport resonated within popular culture, particularly in intersectional identity axis (race, gender, class, etc.).[17] While Lipsitz, Lott, and others have done rich work with critical readings of popular music lyrics from more recent eras, I was not able to locate scholarly research that takes a similar approach with TPA songs, considering how song lyrics, themes, and messages were understood and interpreted by then-contemporary audiences and reflected shifting cultural mores and tastes during the early decades of the twentieth century.

A notable exception is Smith’s 2003 God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War, which details the U.S. Government’s search for “the great war song” during World War II.[18] However, her project focuses more on unearthing the mechanisms of the “top-down” politically motivated song writing project, though some attention is given to how the U.S. government solicited and measured public engagement with and reaction to various “war themed” songs in popular music during the era. However, her time frame comes toward the end of the TPA era and falls after the time period during which the bulk of baseball-related TPA songs emerged. Though not a scholarly monograph, the 2008 Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out To The Ball Game is the clearest precedent for the type of work this project seeks to do, bringing together archival documents from baseball and Tin Pan Alley history and placing them within a broader historical and popular culture landscape.[19] Their book, while not an extended scholarly engagement, is a rich hybrid project that provides key insights into how and why “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” had such popular culture resonance and brings to light the limited success the Tin Pan Alley song producing machine jumping on to or creating a proverbial baseball bandwagon.

The remainder of this paper will be a first attempt at coming to terms with the scope of the baseball-related sheet music collections contained in the digital archive, providing some sense of what themes emerge during the song titles produced during the height of the TPA era, which for the purposes of this project is capped at the late 1940s and early 1950s. Of great relevance to this project is the three-part bibliography of “Sports and Recreations in American Popular Songs” compiled by Margaret M. Mott in 1950, published in Notes. Although her bibliography does not include extensive performance or reception information, the details she does provide about the sport-related repertoire (which is heavily dominated by songs about baseball), its publication, and use within popular culture is indispensable for this project.[20] An immediate next step for this project is adding details from her bibliography to the records for individual songs. However, those details have not presently been added and are not referenced extensively in this narrative. In addition to identifying key themes and patterns that emerge within the collection, this paper will provide some close readings of songs that are representative of these themes. More broadly, this paper will explore how baseball’s intersection with popular culture during this period, as demonstrated by TPA songs, contrasts with the sport’s various social and cultural functions during this period.

[1] George Lipsitz, “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American

Studies,” American Quarterly 42 (1990): 616.

[2] George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994).

[3] Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, and Meat: History of Voice, Sound, and Aurality in the Arts (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).

[4] Jonathan Sterne, ed., Sound Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2012); Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, ed., Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[5] Mark M. Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). Mark M. Smith, ed., Hearing History: A Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).

[6] Emily Ann Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).

[7] Trevor Pinch and Karen Bijsterveld, “Sound Studies: New Technology and Music,” Social Studies of Science 34 (2004): 635-648.

[8] Michelle Hilmes, “Is There a Field Called Sound-culture Studies? And Does It Matter?” American Quarterly 57 (2005): 249.

[9] Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkley: University of California Press, 2005): 23.

[10] Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, “Introduction: Listening to American Studies,” American Quarterly 63 (2011): 2.

[11] Susan Banet-Weiser, “Preface,” American Quarterly 63 (2011): vii; Keeling and Kun, 9.

[12] Anthony Bateman and John Bale, ed., Sporting Sound: Relationships Between Sport and Music (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[13] Ken McCleod, We are the Champions: The Politics of Sports and Popular Music (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2011).

[14] Anthony Bateman, ed., Sport, Music, Identities (New York: Routledge, 2015).

[15] Matthew W. Mihalka, "From the Hammond Organ to ‘Sweet Caroline’: The Historical Evolution of Baseball's Sonic Environment," PhD diss. (University of Minnesota, 2012).

[16] Isaac Goldberg, Tin Pan Alley; a Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket (New York: John Day Company, 1930); Hazel Meyer, The Gold in Tin Pan Alley (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958); David Ewen, The Life and Death of Tin Pan Alley; the Golden Age of American Popular Music (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1964); John Shepherd, Tin Pan Alley (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982); David A. Jasen, Tin Pan Alley: The Composers, the Songs, the Performers, and Their times, The Golden Age of American Popular Music from 1886 to 1956 (New York: D.I. Fine, 1988); Nicholas E. Tawa, The Way to Tin Pan Alley: American Popular Song, 1866-1910 (New York: Schirmer Books, 1990); Thomas S. Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002).

[17] Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley a History of America's Great Lyricists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[18] Kathleen E.R. Smith, God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003).

[19] Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, and Tim Wiles, Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game (New York: Hal Leonard, 2008).

[20] Margaret M. Mott, “A Bibliography of Song Sheets: Sports and Recreations in American Popular Songs, Part I” Notes 6 (1949):379-418; Margaret M. Mott, “A Bibliography of Song Sheets: Sports and Recreations in American Popular Songs, Part II” Notes 7 (1950): 522-561; Margaret M. Mott, “A Bibliography of Song Sheets: Sports and Recreations in American Popular Songs, Part III” Notes 9 (1951): 33-62.


Katherine Walden